Peter Singer Looks Back at 30 Years of Animal Liberation

Peter Singer wrote an article in May for The Guardian looking back 30 after the publication of his essay/book review in The New York Review of Books, “Animal Liberation.”

Singer writes that, “A lot has changed since the appearance of that review and of the book, also called Animal Liberation, that grew out of it.” Of course what has not changed are Singer’s specious arguments. For example, Singer still apparently thinks this is a good argument for animal liberation,

Being able to reason better than another being doesn’t mean that our pains and pleasures count more than those of others — whether those “others” are human or non-human. After all, some humans — infants and those with severe intellectual disabilities — don’t reason as well as some non-human animals, but we would, rightly be shocked by anyone who proposed that we inflict slow, painful deaths on these intellectually inferior humans to test the safety of household products. Nor, of course, would we tolerate confining them in small cages and then slaughtering them in order to eat them. The fact that we are prepared to do these things to non-human animals is a sign of “speciesism,” a prejudice that survives because it is convenient for the dominant group — in this case, not whites or males, but all humans.

It is still difficult to understand how Singer can make the leap from how we treat human beings with differing reasoning capabilities to how we treat members of other species where not a single member of that species shows any evidence of higher-level cognitive skills.

Moreover although Singer concedes later that “evolutionary theory effectively debunks the idea that God gave humans dominion over the animals,” he is apparently oblivious to how other developments in evolutionary thought, including evolutionary psychology, have undercut what little substance there was to Singer’s claim that “speciesism” is mere prejudice. In fact what Singer dismisses as mere prejudice in fact is the best hypothesis yet on the evolution of moral foundations.

Another thing that has not changed is Singer’s selective citing of scientific research, such as his reference in his Guardian article to studies claiming that fish feel pain. In fact that study simply demonstrated that fish are capable of nociception and are able to respond to external stimuli, not that they feel pain.

Even Singer is forced to concede the obvious — 30 years later there is no society on the planet that is close to adopting his view of human/non-human relations,

Still, no society is even close to giving equal consideration to the interests of all animals. The spread of western methods of intensive farming to China and other nations in the developing world is threatening to incarcerate billions more animals in factory farms. After 30 years, the most that can be said is that — at least in the developed world — we are beginning to move in the right direct.

Singer seems to be pinning his hopes here that an increasing awareness of animal welfare issues will inevitably lead to animal liberation. Europe seems the only place where that even has a shot, but even there it is Europe’s increasingly anti-science, anti-technology views that have allowed the animal rights movement to gain ground rather than any serious contemplation of granting animals equal interest.


Some are more equal: Why do we insist that rights to life, liberty and protection from torture be confined to humans? Peter Singer, The Guardian (London), May 19, 2003.

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